Tales from the Shack – February 2020 – the monthly update on what’s happening in the natural world on the wider estate

Posted by CDoyle on 28/02/2020

The 35 acres of Beale Wildlife Park sits within the wider-estate which runs alongside the River Thames. The estate is home to a variety of wildlife native to the UK which is monitored by a team of volunteers, one of whom, Rob will be writing a regular blog on the changes in nature around the estate throughout the year.

Called ‘Tales from the Shack’, Rob writes his blog from the small shed within our Education Centre area.

Tales from the Shack…

Forget Tyson Fury, out in the fields things are really getting lively for one group of pugilists — the Brown Hares are boxing. This is the start of their breeding cycle which runs from February to October.

Why do we call them ‘Mad March Hares’ when this behaviour lasts for ten months? Well in March the vegetation is low making the hares easier to spot. Female hares (known as ‘Does’ or ‘Jills’) come into oestrus for about a day a month so the males (‘Bucks’ or ‘Jacks’) will become ‘ frisky’ as they sort out a hierarchy with the older, stronger males being more dominant. The ‘Boxing’, however, is between male and female, the Jill actually cuffing or boxing any male suitor she finds undesirable.

This is the culmination of hours of chasing until she picks her partner to be —‘Hello big boy’.

The phrase ‘Mad as a March hare’ was famously commented on by Lewis Carroll in ‘Alice in Wonderland’:

‘The Hatter shook his head mournfully “Not I” he replied “We quarrelled last month – just before we went mad” (pointing a teaspoon at the March hare)’.

However, this imagined behaviour of hares goes back to 1548 with the expression of ‘hare brained’, “A hare brained Hotspur, governe’d by  a spleen” (Henry IV, part 1), a ‘Hotspur’ being a rash, impetuous person.

It is not uncommon for Brown Hares to be albino (unlucky if seen) through to black (considered to be good). Many people will say “White Rabbit” on the 1st day of a new month but tradition has it that you should also say “Hares, hares” the evening before. It was widely believed that if a pregnant women saw a hare her child would have a congenital face abnormality we call ‘hare lip’ by analogy to the hare’s face.

Nature’s calendar

The 1st of March heralds the start of spring although this year we could say it marks the end of the wet season – we hope! Average temperatures are warmer than January and February but may not be as high as those of October/November and snowfall can be a feature of March weather. For nature it’s a slow build up to things to come.

Woodland flowers are now coming into their own as more sunlight and warmth reaches the forest floor before leaf burst. Primroses, Wood Anemones and later Bluebells will all play their part in life’s tapestry.

The first bird migrants will be arriving from Africa including Chiffchaffs, Wheatears and Sand Martins. This is the month for Grey Squirrels’ babies with an average of three per litter. It is also the big spawning month for frogs; you may be lucky enough to see mating pairs in the ‘amplexus embrace’, the male clinging to the back of the female, something that may last several weeks.

Warmer days will see an increase in insect activity, butterflies and bees by day and moths by night. Hedgerows, with an abundance of Buckthorn, turn white as they flower before opening their leaves; freezing weather at this time of year is often referred to as a ‘Buckthorn winter’.

Trees are also in on the act with species like Poplars, Willows and Hazel producing their catkins and with it an abundance of pollen, not good news for those allergic to it – yours truly!

Wordsworth’s ‘Host of golden daffodils’ was inspired by a walk on the 15th April 1805 which seems rather late in these days of global warming, none the less let’s get out there and enjoy!

Rob